Be careful what you wish for.
Without a doubt, 2015 was a fantastic year for Xbox One gaming. So many fine retail and indie games came out, I couldn't even fit them all in my Top Xbox One Games of 2015 roundup.
One of the best things about Microsoft's console is the ID@Xbox program that makes indie games so easy to bring to market. But the downside to ID@Xbox is that traditional quality control has been relaxed quite a bit. Much as I love indie games, some real stinkers made their way to Xbox One last year. Read on as we take the gloves off and present our 10 Worst Xbox One Games of 2015!
1. Worst Puzzle Game: Fat City
Fat City is a curious game from Heavy Iron Studios. Originally founded as a part of THQ, Heavy Iron has long toiled away at licensed games (a genre often derided as shovelware). Near as I can tell, Fat City is the studio's first original property – the team's first chance to express themselves creatively without the constraints of a license or publisher.
How strange then that Heavy Iron churned out Fat City, a crime-themed puzzle game with some of the most uninspired visuals ever unleashed on the console. The cut-rate text-based introduction explains that the player's sister has been kidnapped by her former criminal employers. You'll have to take her place to save her, pulling off heists and capers until you accrue enough wealth to buy her freedom (I think).
Fat City's most glaring problem is you can't tell anything about the gameplay from screenshots. Every single screen looks like a slide from a boring PowerPoint presentation. The city, banks, criminals, targets, and everything else come to life in the most simplistic, nondescript way possible. I just don't know how an established studio that presumably consists of more than one person could release a game without assigning an actual artist to the visuals.
The basic gameplay doesn't hurt too much, although the stark simplicity would fit much better on phones and tablets than a powerful console. Before each heist (level) begins, you'll plot a path out on the city map – sort of like choosing Pac-Man's path for him before releasing him in the maze. As the missions progress, you'll start to direct two operatives at once. Then you set the heist in motion, watch it play out with minor bits of interaction. If the team succeeds and avoids the ever-present cops, they'll receive money and a star grade for the level.
Fat City is essentially a mobile game that got confused and showed up on consoles before phones (supposedly it's eventually coming to Kindle). It also suffers from horrendous menus that show little understanding of console UI philosophy. It took me a few minutes just to figure out how to access the in-game store to purchase an item required for a mission, so little do the menus make sense.
This one inadvisably launched at $18.49 and then quickly dropped to $12.99. At that price, it might be worth a buy for Achievement hunters. The Achievements don't require much time or effort, kind of like the process behind Fat City's visuals.
2. Worst 3D Platformer: Frizzy
Most of us should be familiar with the concept of a movie being "so bad, it's good." Troll 2, The Room, Prometheus – these are movies we watch for comedic value rather than their intended purpose. You don't see that in games much. But Frizzy is so bad, it ends up kind of awesome in its own way.
A handful of people (students?) called Team Frizz launched a Kickstarter campaign for Frizzy in April 2015. They asked for $3,000 – not nearly enough to make a game. The Kickstarter ended with only $360 in pledges, thus failing to reach its funding goal. And yet Team Frizz (Team Frizz!) soldiered on anyway, releasing Frizzy on Xbox One and PC that October.
The best part of Frizzy is its spectacular train wreck of an intro. A poorly-written text scrawl scrolls by too quickly to read. We see a field filled with simplistic polygonal cats, dogs, and puffballs hopping around with little animation and a poor frame rate. A ridiculous giant cow head flies up and sneezes at the animals. They all fly away off into the distance, not animating at all. The cow head emits this text laugh that looks like someone who doesn't know how to type laughter just mashed on the keyboard while an explosion surges past. That's not ineptitude, ladies, and gents; that's great art.
If only the real game were so inspired. Our personality-free puffball hero Frizzy starts out on a floating island in front of a brick wall. He gets a little typo-laden advice from a pink cat, and then he must enter a stone gate to begin the first level. The B button opens doors here, even though almost any other button would make more sense.
Each of Frizzy's levels has two goals: go through the exit door and collect all of the floating items along the way. Frizzy gets around by jumping or spawning "balloons" (I don't think the developers know what a balloon is) and then grappling onto them.
Running around and collecting crap feels okay in an old-fashioned way, but the controls for aiming Frizzy's "balloons" (Couldn't they have done a web search to see what balloons look like?) are atrocious. The cursor fights you as you try to aim, so there's a big unnecessary learning curve. A game with so little in its favor really needs the core mechanic to work just right, but instead, it just barely works.
Supposedly Frizzy is a love letter to N64-era games, but it looks worse than most N64 games – and that's downright hard to do. Strange that the Xbox One version costs $8 while the Steam version sells for only $3. With so many competent platformers out there, even three bucks is probably too much for this one.
3. Worst 2D Platformer: GunWorld
Retro-style games can provide a nice combination of new experience and nostalgia. But capturing what made old games great while living up to modern standards presents a challenge. GunWorld: Xbox One Edition from one-man developer m07games aims to recapture the look and feel of NES-era action-platformers like Mega Man, with limited success.
Players start with a giant knife in GunWorld, but it intentionally does so little damage as to be useless. Instead, you're supposed to throw seeds at the ground, which then spout into guns. Our hero(s) begin with unlimited supplies of two different seeds, each creating a different kind of gun. The guns have limited ammunition, so you frequently have to throw more seeds to replace them. The seed and limited-ammo mechanics add nothing to the game but annoyance – standard gun selection would work much better.
GunWorld lets players select levels in any order. You only get three lives per level, and levels barely have any checkpoints. If you run out of lives (easy to do given the unforgiving difficulty), you'll have to start the whole level over. The dying sound effect is a horrible static noise, too.
You can lessen the frustration by bringing along a co-op friend, but the co-op mechanics are poorly thought out. The second player can respawn an unlimited number of times, but if the first player runs out of lives, it's still Game Over. Not a balanced or fun implementation of co-op.
I'm a sucker for pixel art and retro pixel art, so GunWorld's artistic approach should naturally appeal to me. The backgrounds certainly look great for the most part and even feature an effect called parallax scrolling that you seldom saw on the NES. The sprite-work doesn't fare as well, though. The two protagonists are fairly ugly, and they don't even have the decency to animate when jumping off walls. They just bound away from the wall as if they had never touched it, which looks ridiculous.
I could almost forgive GunWorld's horrendous level design, needless seed mechanics, and general budget feel – if not for its tendency to crash all the time. My co-op partner and I suffered through an entire level and beat the boss only for the game to crash, losing our progress. The game crashes so often I'm surprised it passed certification.
Yeah, at $2 GunWorld is the cheapest non-free Xbox One game in town. But that's only a good deal if you consider your time worthless.
4. Worst First-Person Game: Infinity Runner
Endless runners hardly ever work on consoles, but they can be done well – see Funk of Titans. Infinity Runner from Wales Interactive takes a wildly different approach than the norm, as we play it entirely in the first person.
Infinity Runner's Story mode starts out with our nameless hero, a naked man, awakening from a deep sleep within the spaceship Infinity. A British woman's head appears at the top of the screen and communicates to him via non-lip synced voiceovers. Her instructions: run like crazy, because everyone is trying to kill you.
Our hero must run through a nearly endless series of corridors and walkways. Players constantly need to dodge left and right to avoid obstacles, and even simple intersections can prove deadly if you fail to turn in time. Unintuitively, the right analog stick makes 90-degree turns. These turns often prove fatal because the timing is awkward and walls can be difficult to see in the dark…
To break up the monotony of running uncontrollably through dark corridors, Infinity Runner has some light melee combat here and there. Unfortunately, these melee fights against the ship crew happen through boring QuickTime Events (QTEs) rather than action. As the game progresses, our hero eventually turns into a werewolf. The wolf fights don't spice up combat; they just happen automatically instead of requiring input.
Dated 3D graphics aside, this game has ridiculously inadequate lighting. Everything is so black I couldn't even play in the daytime. The easiest difficulty adds lighted arrows to walls so you can actually know when to turn, but higher difficulties have no such lighting. This deliberately poor lighting makes an already simple and repetitive game that much less fun to play.
The sad thing about Infinity Runner is that it didn't need to be so dark and joyless. If Wales Interactive had taken the exact same story, setting, and old-fashioned graphics and made a retro first-person shooter, we'd be talking about a much better game.
5. Worst Twin-Stick Shooter: LA Cops
The crime of workplace sexual harassment going unpunished
Team17 is a historied British developer that began publishing other developers' indie titles in 2013. They now split hairs a bit by referring to themselves as a label rather than a publisher. Of the games Team17 has published, a few have been stinkers – starting with LA Cops.
Take the indie exploitation hit Hotline Miami, throw in a hard-boiled 70s cop-show vibe, switch the perspective to an isometric one, and you get LA Cops. Players choose a couple of cops from a squad and then head out on missions to shoot tons of criminals (and maybe even arrest one or two).
At a glance, LA Cops seems like a decent stylized twin-stick shooter. But a big part of any shooter is the shooting, which this one completely bungles. The aiming is so clumsy and slow the developers had to implement a lock on button to help players hit their targets. Locking on adds very little to the gameplay, especially since you usually can't lock on to new enemies quickly enough after killing the previous one.
Just as annoyingly, enemies will zero in and shoot at your cops ridiculously quickly after they take a hit or detect fire. They're all kill-bots with evil AI, who will hit you without error if you're not already firing their way when they enter the room.
The player gets a partner that can be ordered to specific locations and switched to at will. Your partner doesn't stand much chance when unattended, and you can't revive him or her without finding the single medkit hidden randomly throughout the level. Taking turns controlling two characters doesn't make sense for this style of game, anyway. It really should be co-op.
Perhaps LA Cops' worst crime is that it doesn't capitalize on the Louisiana setting or its unique culture. That's why they called it LA Cops and not L.A. Cops, right? But seriously, with better shooting, AI, and co-op, this could have provided a much less crass alternative to Hotline Miami.
6. Worst Local Multiplayer: Orbit
Local multiplayer-only games are their own worst enemy. The developers decide to save time and money by not creating a campaign or AI bots to play against, all in hopes that playing against friends locally will suffice. Games like that are hard to recommend, but especially when they play as poorly as Orbit from 4Bit Games.
In Orbit, 2-4 players will select between two game modes (Tournament and Mayhem) and then battle to the death in a space setting reminiscent of Asteroids. Only here there are no asteroids. Instead, Orbit utilizes a gravity mechanic in which black holes and planets create their own gravity wells. Player ships must curve around these heavenly bodies to avoid destruction.
The gravity thing makes sense in theory, but not execution. Not only does gravity affect your ships, but it also impacts your shots. A game of Orbit consists of two or more ships firing shots at each other that curve around and fly off to nowhere thanks to goofy gravity mechanics. Firing a bunch and hardly ever hitting anything might sound like a great time, but it turns out not to be.
Each ship also has an energy meter that depletes upon firing or moving around. Shoot or move too much and you'll overheat and explode, which again turns out to be less fun than it sounds. Those are Orbit's only mechanics, and they just don't work. Other issues include slow menus that don't explain what anything does and force players to hold buttons for seconds to make selections (like a Kinect game).
The only things Orbit has going for it are simple but attractive visuals and a peppy soundtrack. In every other way, this game is a black hole of fun.
7. Worst Arena Fighter: Overruled!
Xbox One will never have a true Smash Bros game, but it got three Smash Bros-style games in 2015: Clash, Kung Fu Panda, and Overruled. Kung Fu Panda is a retail title, so Clash from FennecFox and Overruled! from Dlala Studios and Team17 are most fairly compared. Clash has absolutely no single-player support (boo!), and yet it still looks and plays better than Overruled.
Overruled! stars a shelf full of hideous toys who come to life and fight for some reason. These toys will participate in 2-4 player battles either locally or online though you shouldn't expect to find anyone actually playing online.
Although Overruled! is an arena-based fighting game, it doesn't play that much like Smash Bros. Every character has the same moveset: they can punch, fire a rocket that takes the time to recharge, and jump or double jump around each arena. Players can also collect and switch between three single-use cards with effects like halving points or temporarily changing the game rules. Two of these cards can "Overrule" the impact of enemy cards, hence the otherwise irrelevant game title.
Overruled! naturally includes several game types such as traditional deathmatch, Coin Grab, and a King-of-the-hill type match. By default, the game oddly switches between these types after set amounts of time. Matches last five minutes, but that feels like forever. It would make far more sense to have shorter matches dedicated to single game types – but at least, you can adjust the timer beforehand in Match Settings.
Unlike Clash, Overruled! has a single-player challenge mode – but it actually makes the game worse instead of better. All 9 characters have six unique challenges, and the lack of effort that went into these challenges can't be overstated. You'll battle against bots who literally do nothing but stand still and fire – they have no movement AI. The Challenges amount to busy work for a few Achievements and nothing more.
If you fixed the boring fight mechanics and meandering matches, Overuled! could almost be a fun game when played with friends – were it not so ugly. Nobody will ever accuse me of being a graphics whore, but I find these poorly cel-shaded characters and levels overwhelmingly off-putting.
I love Team17, but they need to be a bit more careful about the indie games they sign to their label if they don't want to damage their reputation.
8. Worst Microsoft-Published Game: ScreamRide
ScreamRide is not a disaster or a buggy mess like some of the games on this list. It's better than all of them, really. But we included it because it's easily the worst Xbox One game that Microsoft itself published in 2015.
The career mode puts players in charge of testing a theme park for reasons unknown in a desolate future setting. Career actually consists of three separate game types, all of which can be progressed through separately:
- ScreamRider: Ride a roller coaster while trying to earn points and avoid derailing. Controls include activating Turbo, landing from jumps, and leaning into or away from curves. Although this mode starts out enjoyable enough, it becomes frustratingly hard towards the end of the game.
- Demolitions Expert: Fire vehicles full of people at buildings to knock them down. The aiming controls are clunky like a monkey, and the minigame itself just doesn't fit in with ScreamRide's theme.
- Engineer: Solve puzzle levels by finishing off incomplete roller coasters. Not much fun.
Outside of campaign, ScreamRide offers a full Sandbox mode in which players can build roller coasters or demolition levels from scratch and then share them online. Sandbox is easily the best part of the game, but it belongs in a proper theme park simulation rather than a disjointed collection of minigames.
ScreamRide comes from Frontier Developments – a quality studio behind the much better Elite: Dangerous. This game feels like a paycheck gig taken to keep the studio afloat. None of the minigames is polished enough to stand on its own, nor do they fit together into a cohesive package.
This one launched at half the price of a standard retail title, but it's only worth the buy if you feel like devoting time to designing roller coasters. Microsoft had a bad habit of publishing exclusives with little obvious appeal during the last few years of the Xbox 360 and the Xbox One's first year. Hopefully, ScreamRide will be the last "filler" exclusive that Microsoft sends out to die.
9. Worst Sports Game: Toro
Many gamers would naturally find themselves predisposed to dislike Toro, Spanish developer Reco Technology's game about the barbaric sport of bullfighting. Not me! We do lots of mean things in games like Grand Theft Auto V, but that doesn't mean we think they're okay in real life. The unusual premise is why I wanted to give Toro a chance.
Right off the bat, Toro is hard to get into because of its PlayStation 2-era 3D visuals. The models for the matador and bull are quite simplistic, though at least they bothered to make the bull anatomically correct (!). The ground consists of flat, low-resolution textures with no 3D grass or elevation. The actual arenas look okay, but the developer's roots as an XBLIG developer for Xbox 360 never stop showing through.
How does a bullfighting game even work? Players will unlock and assign up to four moves and then enter a three-phase battle against an innocent (but mean) beast. Phase one consists of taunting the bull, phase two stabbing it with flags, and phase three: taunting and then killing the bull. Man, bulls have it rough.
To battle the bull, you will hold Left Trigger and press other buttons during the fight. Since you always hold Left Trigger, making us hold it is totally redundant. Left Bumper taunts the bull to make it charge, although it will charge on its own after a few seconds anyway. When the beast reaches the right distance, sequences of two buttons such as X, A perform different moves.
Successfully perform a move (which is hard because the game doesn't tell you any of the moves' ranges) and the bull runs past, starting a combo. Pull off another move as it approaches to keep the combo going; fail and it knocks your Latino around like a bloodless ragdoll. Throw in some QuickTime Events (pressing a sequence of buttons to match on-screen prompts) here and there, and that's the whole fight… Up until the end.
The final stabbing of the bull requires you to aim a crosshair and tap a button as it approaches. The matador stabs the bull off-screen, so players never see any blood or the downed bull. Perhaps this bloodless approach helped Toro receive a gentler rating, but it really neuters whatever mild potential Toro might've had. People watch bullfighting because they want to see violence, so leaving the violence out and pretending the sport is harmless is both missing the point and dishonest.
I won't lie; I find having Achievements from a weird game like Toro on my Xbox Live profile appealing. But Toro is a repetitive, ugly game that will barely even appeal to bullfighting fans. Most of us are better off avoiding this undercooked hamburger.
10. Worst Ninja Game: Yasai Ninja
Seemingly inspired by Konami's Goemon/Mystical Ninja games, Reco Technology's second Xbox One game Yasai Ninja takes place in a feudal Japan inhabited entirely by anthropomorphic vegetables. That might look and sound stupid, but I'm always down for a game starring ninjas and samurai – even doofy ones.
The game begins with a Japanese-voiced intro whose subtitles often blend in unreadably with the artwork behind them. Our ugly onion samurai decides to rescue a racist caricature broccoli out of prison, at which point the pair must wander aimlessly through a castle with no map where everything looks the same.
A 3D action-platformer like the old Spyro games, Yasai Ninja pits our heroes against hordes of veggi-baddies. Players can perform simple weak attack combos to start, and will eventually gain a strong attack as well. They can't attack in the air, which makes them crappy ninjas if you ask me. But they can, at least, block or roll to avoid damage. Neither blocking nor rolling works very well, though. Stiff, slow combat with poor defense options makes up the meat (or is that vegetable?) of the game, other than the plodding wandering and bouts of platforming.
Yasai Ninja can be played in single-player (switching between characters at will) or split-screen co-op. Either way, the game looks like spoiled lettuce. The camera wobbles awkwardly as the ninjas run around, and the characters don't animate any smoother. Turn (as you'll have to do often) and you'll see the worst screen-tearing in recent memory. The whole screen shimmers in a mildly nauseating way. Nothing some V-Sync wouldn't fix, but Yasai Ninja is fresh out.
To RecoTech's credit, the developer took early feedback into account and patched up some rough edges shortly after launch. But this is a game with lots of combat in which the combat never feels good, and you can't mask that foul taste with salad dressing. Hopefully, the developer's third Xbox One game will be the charm.
11. About these picks
Toro, I can't quit you
Nobody sets out to make a bad game. But games can "go bad" for many reasons, such as poor management, budget cuts, staff losses, fixed deadlines, and more. In this story, we're dealing mostly with very small indie teams. The blame in most of these cases probably comes down to lack of experience, manpower, and/or skill.
For this roundup, I only considered games that I actually played. They also had to be released in 2015, so no LocoCycle or Duck Dynasty on this list. In some cases, I did seek to play games specifically because I thought they would not be good. And yet, a few games surprised me by being too strong to include – I'm really warming up to Deer God, for instance.
Every one of these games could have been good with more guidance or refinement… Well, not Fat City and Frizzy, but all the others. We don't present this roundup to hate. Instead, this feedback – however harsh – is intended to help developers know how to make a game that players will appreciate.
If you're looking for some quality indie and retail games to play, be sure to read my Top 11 Xbox One Games of 2015. Jez also has a roundup of the Best 25 Xbox One Games with even more recommendations.
Do you guys think these games deserve to be on this list? What's the worst game you played that came out in 2015?